Was lucky enough to visit Ohrid this past weekend. Even in miserable weather, the lake was beautiful and the city is breath-taking. I am jealous of the volunteers who get to call this place home, but glad that it’s only a few hours away from my own site. Ohrid is another Macedonian only town, but I was understood. Also, since it’s a very popular tourist destination, most everyone spoke at least some level of English. Sometimes, I forget to be more appreciative of that fact. Imagine having to learn another language for work or some other necessity. (I know that, as the face of America changes, many people are picking up another language, and I applaud you!) I never think of my own language abilities either, at this point, but I’ve learnt two languages at the same time in six months. I forget that sometimes, except when someone exclaims excitedly when I reply in Macedonian or Albanian.
Peace Corps Volunteers around the world are in a bit of an uproar over the COVID-19 Corona virus. Each country is handling it differently, including here in N Macedonia, where it seems to be mostly travel restrictions to various countries and a reminder to be cautious about being in large groups. There are some countries facing evacuations, and the ending of the programme in China (or “graduation” as it is called, as not being a Peace Corps country is — and should be — seen as a positive) coincided with this virus. I am sorry for the volunteers who are facing evacuation or the premature graduation of their programme; it must be devastating and frightening to have to think of your future when you’re unprepared for it.
In my downtime this weekend, I watched the Netflix special Pandemic, which I would recommend. I think the whole world is unprepared for a pandemic, but I don’t think COVID-19 will reach pandemic levels. It is smart, however, to pay attention, and of course, WASH YOUR HANDS. I now have the beginning of “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance forever stuck in my brain because that’s what I’ve chosen to sing whilst I wash my hands for the requisite twenty seconds.
Other things of note: the US primary has opened up political discussions around the world, especially since we are an American organisation with younger, probably more politically active folks. I already sent in my absentee ballot for Georgia’s Democratic primary, because N Macedonia’s postal system is…ancient and unreliable. It’s been received by the registrar in my home city; I love that they have a system in place where you can see online if your ballot was received. Go Georgia! There are obviously very different opinions about this year’s election, even amongst people in the same party. If you follow my twitter account you already know my feelings, and I am doing my best to avoid discussing it with host country nationals. I never refuse to answer a question, however.
I had a friend come to visit me from another country this past weekend. They had never been to the Balkans, and some things that I have just come to accept were a shock to them. Cars parked on side-walks, the prevalence of cash over card, the eclectic architectural styles. I am a Westerner too, but even just living here and being used to the way of life always sort of startles me. It’s odd what you get used to when there’s not really any alternatives.
There is a routine here that I quite enjoy. Routine sounds boring and tedious, but it actually helps me be comfortable. I love that Tuesdays are market days, and that most Albanian families settle to watch the same soap operas on ALSAT M, and I clearly love holiday traditions all over the world. (I am excited to see how Eid al-Fitr [Bajrami i Madh] is celebrated here.) I have also created my own routines to help me at work and with my language studies.
And now, I have something a little bit serious and perhaps political (but only for Americans). It has been 13-18 degrees Celsius (55-64 Fahrenheit) here in January and February. We have had three days of snow all winter. This is an atypical winter, and apparently Europe has seen the hottest Januaries and Februaries for the past four years, with this year going to top the previous ones. Climate change is real, and it is destroying seasons. It is destroying tourist areas in N Macedonia: there has not been enough snow for skiing and snowboarding. It is confusing plants and wildlife, and making planting, harvesting and blooming seasons shorter. Food fluctuates wildly in price because of this, making it hard to budget. Human activity is causing the bulk of this situation, but not every human is to blame. The biggest polluters are companies not located in N Macedonia, but using N Macedonia and other places as their dumping grounds. Just 100 countries are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions. Our small steps are not going to change anything. We need to demand change from our complacent politicians.
This weekend I went to visit a fellow volunteer at her site in Bitola. It is a much bigger city than mine, and more than that, it is solidly Macedonian, even though it’s not very far from Greece. It was decked out for Christmas (which is celebrated on the 7th of January, as this is an Orthodox country) and I only heard Macedonian. I am still studying both, but my Albanian is stronger by a mile. I really enjoyed my time there. I stayed in my training city, which is a blessing in many ways: there’s no new readjustment period and I know my way around pretty well. On the other hand getting to know a new place might have been interesting. Also, I’m the only volunteer in my city proper (there’s one about 40 minutes away) so it does get lonely sometimes.
I also visited Tetovo to meet with my Albanian tutor. As the holidays stretch out before me (work does not begin until the 21st of January) I know I will have to fill my days with things to do. Breaks were much shorter and busier in America, so having more time to myself is much nicer but challenging. I am hoping for more winter weather and the opportunity to travel with my extended host family.
I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions because I feel guilty about not keeping up with them, but obviously there are goals in mind. I hope to become better in Albanian (and try to improve my Macedonian); I want to set up new programmes and clubs at the school where I work; I would like to do some travelling around the Balkans and southern Europe. I’m also thinking about the future (it’s so far, I know) but I’ve already started researching PhD programmes and future work possibilities. I don’t like blank spots, I guess you could say.
If I had to use one word to describe these past 72 hours, I would use “overwhelmed”. There is no describing the intensity of 56 people trying to get through security at JFK and onto a plane filled with confused non Peace Corps people. Nothing will describe the bleary morning arrival of those same people to the N Macedonian airport (aerodrom). Nothing will describe the first meal, the first heavy rain, the first nervous classes. We have already made friends and learnt so much about ourselves.
As it’s only been about three days since my arrival in N Macedonia, I can only talk about my first impressions. We are in the west, and the mountains here are breath-taking. We counted minarets on the way from the airport to our orientation site, and marvelled at the strangely empty detached houses along the way, musing on why they looked so new and yet were so empty. There were men selling grapes fresh from the vineyards in boxes along the motorway, and piles of rubbish were on fire as we passed.
So far, we have seen one street of our orientation site city, and I have been twice to go for tiny shops in the grocery store. We have been visited by two cats and a very loyal and dirty white dog who was baptised newly as Mochi by some trainees. I have never visited the Balkans, so the buildings feel familiar but strange at the same time.
Other observations: Remembering to throw toilet paper into the bin is tricky but I think I have perfected it. The Cyrillic alphabet is not difficult but I am struggling with it. I’m not struggling with speaking though, if I may brag. I am slightly confused on how phone service works here, even though I have a new N Macedonian number. I have only had black tea with milk once since I’ve been here, and I am missing it badly. I think I have already lost my sunglasses, which is a shame.
I am always surprised about the mundane nature of our first observations, but then I suppose we are trying to cling to some normalcy and will doing anything to keep our mind clear. Everything is different, but nothing really is, honestly. We still have to sleep and eat and learn, just in a different country. I think everything will be fine.